Episode Description

Soaring to New Heights

In the years following World War 2, aviation technology explodes, and with the massive increase in height and speed that aircraft are capable of attaining come new challenges for keeping pilots safe.  Joe Kittinger is an air force test pilot who volunteers to test experimental parachute systems designed for high altitude bailouts. To do so, he stuffs himself into a small gondola attached to a helium filled balloon, rises to the edge of the stratosphere and jumps several miles back to earth. He courts extreme danger over the course of several jumps but survives them all, later going on to fly three tours of duty in Vietnam and being the first man to solo pilot a balloon across the Atlantic. At 84 years old, he mentors daredevil Felix Baumgartner’s historic space jump in October, 2012.

Dr. John Stapp is a maverick military researcher who, among many accomplishments, tackles the problem of pilots getting killed due to poorly designed restraint systems. To simulate the conditions pilots contend with at jet speed velocity, he builds and straps himself into a rocket sled that is sent racing down a desert track at speeds that eventually top 600 miles per hour before coming to a sudden, violent stop. During his many runs Stapp suffers horribly injuries, including bruises, broken bones, and temporary blindness. As his velocity increases, so does the risk of death. Still he perseveres, succeeding in his mission to protect pilots, and eventually using his research to design something used by everyone; seatbelts in cars. 

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